The idea of making your cells into computer parts to retrieve information may sound like something out of science fiction. However, Stanford University may be closer to be making that fiction into reality.

April 9, 2013

3 Min Read
Tiny Biological Transistors Could Unlock the Power of Cells to Heal

By Reina V. Slutske

The idea of making your cells into computer parts to retrieve information may sound like something out of science fiction – like Fantastic Voyage, where doctors are sunk in a submarine to go inside a patient. 

“The physics department hasn’t come up with shrinking rays yet,” Drew Endy, assistant professor at Stanford University, says. “[Instead] we have to program already-microscopic objects.”

In Endy’s and the team at Stanford’s case, those objects are a patient’s own cells. In turn, they have developed what they call the biological transistor, or transcriptor. The findings could be the building blocks that power medical devices and diagnostics in the future.

“It should grow interest in programming with DNA and could have a very wide application in research and development, and possibly one day in human therapeutics, too,” Andrew Hessel, a futurist in biological technologies, says regarding the development.

To use the transcriptor, the person applying the technology controls the flow of RNA polymerase along the DNA strand using these transcriptors. When placed correctly, they will allow the flow of information along the strand, which can be used to deliver a doctor’s instructions as to what information is needed. The researchers refer to the system as Boolean Integrase Logic, or BIL gates, based off the concept of Boolean logic used in computer science.

“We can implement artificial logic in new places for which our existing modes of computing are never going to work,” Endy says, adding that smartphones and other technology may be more powerful, but would not be able to go to the cellular level the way scientists will be able to with biological transistors.

The transcriptor works as a switch, which helps information travel along the strand of the DNA. If the switch is the wrong way, the message is thrown off. The biological transistors could be used for a variety of practices, such as using prebiotic cells to track cancer or to communicate with medical devices.

“Down the road, we could see living implants or patches that have living cells able to precisely meter out medicines based on the input signals they’re receiving, while also posting their decisions to a log file on the medical record,” Hessel says.

Hessel points out that the transcriptors are part of a larger trend. Other research projects are building low-level components such as cell-to-cell signaling systems, which could be the foundation of future medical developments. 

“To appreciate what this might unlock down the road, think about what the first electronic transistor unlocked after it was made in 1947,” he says. He suspects that programming biology could open as-yet unseen opportunities for health technology.

Endy and his team have decided to put the transcriptor in the public domain instead of keeping it for themselves. Endy says he wants everyone to be free to use it and improve the technology. For now, his team has only been able to use the technology for general purposes.

“There are more applications than we, or any one organization, can imagine,” he says.

Hessel says that it was a smart idea for Endy and his research team to put it in the public domain.

“For this and similar work to have their greatest positive impacts on the world, the application space still needs to be explored by more researchers, more developers, [and] more companies,” he says. “By putting these components in the public domain, it will be easier for anyone to begin to do this and share their work.”

Reina V. Slutske is the assistant editor for MD+DI. 

Related Links:

The Future of Medicine Is in Your DNA

The Six Most Promising Alternative Power Sources

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